“All the better for seeing you. I tell you, Josh my friend, if I sat opposite this gorgeous little creature I wouldn’t get any work done.”
Andy hooks his thumbs into his pockets and smiles at me. I don’t want to hurt his feelings so I roll my eyes good-humoredly.
“It’s a struggle,” Joshua says sarcastically. “Be glad you get to leave.”
“He must have a heart of stone.”
“He sure does. If I can knock him out and get him into a crate, can you have him delivered somewhere remote?” I lean on my desk and look at my tiny parcel.
“International shipping rates have increased,” Andy warns. Joshua shakes his head, bored with the conversation, and begins to log on.
“I’ve got some savings. I think Joshua would love an adventure vacation in Zimbabwe.”
“You’ve got an evil streak, haven’t you!” Andy’s pocket makes a beep and he begins to rummage and walk to the elevator.
“Well, Lovely Luce, it’s been a pleasure as always. I will see you soon, no doubt, after your next online auction.”
“Bye.” When he disappears into the elevator, I turn back to my desk, my face automatically faded to neutral.
I make a Jeopardy! buzzer sound. “Who is Joshua Templeman?”
“Lucinda flirting with couriers. Pathetic.”
Joshua is hammering away on his keyboard. He certainly is an impressive touch typist. I stroll past his desk and am gratified by his frustrated backspacing.
“I’m nice to him.”
I’m surprised by how hurt I feel. “I’m lovely. Ask anyone.”
“Okay. Josh, is she lovely?” he asks himself aloud. “Hmm, let me think.”
He picks up his tin of mints, opens the lid, checks them, closes it, and looks at me. I open my mouth and lift my tongue like a mental patient at the medication window.
“She’s got a few lovely things about her, I suppose.”
I raise a finger and enunciate the words crisply: “Human resources.”
He sits up straighter but the corner of his mouth moves. I wish I could use my thumbs to pull his mouth into a huge deranged grin. As the police drag me out in handcuffs I’ll be screeching, Smile, goddamn you.
We need to get even, because it’s not fair. He’s gotten one of my smiles, and seen me smile at countless other people. I have never seen him smile, nor have I seen his face look anything but blank, bored, surly, suspicious, watchful, resentful. Occasionally he has another look on his face, after we’ve been arguing. His Serial Killer expression.
I walk down the center line of the tile again and feel his head swivel.
“Not that I care what you think, but I’m well liked here. Everyone’s excited about my book club, which you’ve made pretty clear you think is lame, but it will be team building, and pretty relevant, given where we work.”
“You’re a captain of industry.”
“I take the library donations out. I plan the Christmas party. I let the interns follow me around.” I’m ticking them off on my fingers.
“You’re not doing much to convince me you don’t care what I think.” He leans back farther into his chair, long fingers laced together loosely on his generic, flat abdomen. The button near his thumb is half-loose. Whatever my face does, it makes him glance down and rebutton it.
“I don’t care what you think, but I want normal people to like me.”
“You’re chronically addicted to making people adore you.” The way he says it makes me feel a little sick.
“Well, excuse me for doing my best to maintain a good reputation. For trying to be positive. You’re addicted to making people hate you, so what a pair we are.”
I sit down and tap my computer mouse about ten times as hard as I can. His words sting. Joshua is like a mirror that shows me the bad parts of myself. It’s school all over again. Tiny, runt-of-the-litter Lucy using her pathetic cuteness to avoid being destroyed by the big kids. I’ve always been the pet, the lucky charm, the one being pushed on the swings or pulled in a wagon. Carried and coddled and perhaps I am a little pathetic.
“You should try not giving a shit sometime. I tell you, it’s liberating.” His mouth tightens, and a strange shadow clouds his expression. One blink and it’s gone.
“I didn’t ask for your advice, Joshua. I get so mad at myself, letting you drag me down to your level all the time.”
“And what level are you imagining me dragging you down to?” His voice is a little velvety and he bites his lip. “Horizontal?”
Mentally I hit Enter in my HR log and begin a new line.
“You’re disgusting. Go to hell.” I think I’ll go treat myself to a basement scream.
“There you go. You’ve got no problem telling me to go to hell. It’s a good start. It kind of suits you. Now try it with other people. You don’t even realize how much people walk all over you. How do you expect to be taken seriously? Quit giving the same people deadline extensions, month after month.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It’s not every month.” I hate him because he is right.
“It’s every single month, and you have to bust your ass working late to meet your own deadline. Do you see me doing that? No. Those assholes downstairs give it to me on time.”
I dredge up a phrase from the assertiveness self-help book I keep on my nightstand.
“I don’t want to continue this conversation.”
“I’m giving you some good advice here, you should take it. Stop picking up Helene’s dry cleaning—it’s not your job.”
“I am now ending this conversation.” I stand up. Maybe I’ll go and play in the afternoon traffic to let off steam.
“And the courier. Just leave him alone. The sad old guy thinks you’re flirting with him.”
“That’s what people say about you.” The unfortunate retort falls out of my mouth. I try to rewind time. It doesn’t work.
“Is that what you think you and I do? Flirt?”
He reclines back in his chair in a way I can never manage to do. The back of my chair doesn’t budge when I’ve tried to recline. I only succeed in rolling backward and bumping into the wall.
“Shortcake, if we were flirting, you’d know about it.” Our eyes catch and I feel a weird drop inside. This conversation is running off the rails.
“Because I’d be traumatized?”
“Because you’d be thinking about it later on, lying in bed.”
“Been imagining my bed, have you?” I manage to reply.
He blinks, a new rare expression spreading across his face. I want to slap it off. It looks like he knows something I don’t. It’s smug and male and I hate it.
“I bet it’s a very small bed.”
I’m nearly breathing fire. I want to round his desk, kick his feet wider, and stand between his spread legs. I’d put one knee on the little triangle of chair right below his groin, climb up a little, and make him grunt with pain.
I’d pull his tie loose and unbutton the neck of his shirt. I’d put my hands around his big tan throat and squeeze and squeeze, his skin hot underneath my fingertips, his body struggling against me, cedar and pine spicing the air between us, burning my nostrils like smoke.
“What are you imagining? Your expression is filthy.”
“Strangling you. Bare hands.” I can barely get the words out. I’m huskier than a phone-sex operator after a double shift.
“So that’s your kink.” His eyes are going dark.
“Only where you’re concerned.”
Both his eyebrows ratchet up, and he opens his mouth as his eyes go completely black, but he does not seem to be able to say a word.
It is wonderful.
IT’S A BABY-BLUE shirt day when I remember the photo I took of his planner. After I read the Publishing Quarterly Outlook Report and make an executive summary for Helene, I transfer the photo from my phone to my work computer. Then I glance around like a criminal.
Joshua has been in Fat Little Dick’s office all morning, and weirdly the morning has dragged. It’s so quiet in here without someone to hate.
I hit Print, lock my computer, and clatter down the hall. I photocopy it twice, making the resolution darker and darker until the pencil marks are better visible. Needless to say, I shred all unneeded evidence. I wish I could double-shred it.
Joshua’s begun locking away his planner now.
I lean against the wall and tilt the page to the light. The photograph captures a Monday and Tuesday a couple of weeks back. I can see Mr. Bexley’s appointments easily. But next to the Monday is a letter. D. The Tuesday is an S. There is a tally of tiny lines adding up to eight. Dots next to times near lunchtime. A line of four X’s and six little slash marks.
I puzzle covertly over this all afternoon. I’m tempted to go to security and ask Scott for the security tapes for this time period, but Helene might find out. It’d definitely be a waste of company resources too, over and above my illicit photocopying and general slacking.
The answer doesn’t come for some time. It’s late afternoon and Joshua is back in his regular seat across from me. His blue shirt glows like an iceberg. When I finally work out how to decode the pencil marks, I slap my forehead. I can’t believe I’ve been so slow.
“Thanks. I’ve been dying to do that all afternoon,” Joshua says without taking his eyes from his monitor.
He doesn’t know I’ve seen his planner and the pencil codes. I’ll simply notice when he uses the pencil and work out the correlation.
Let the Spying Game begin.
I don’t get quick results with the Spying Game and by the time Joshua is dressed in dove gray I’m at my wit’s end. He has sensed my heightened interest in his activities and has become even more furtive and suspicious. I’ll have to coax him out. I’m never going to see the pencil in motion if all he does is half frown at his computer.